Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Imperial Palace (Tokyo)

It has been some time since I last posted on this site, but as often happens in life we encounter circumstances that detract us from doing what we like in order to focus on doing what we must.

When I started this series on Japan my motivation was to share photos and insights about places I had visited and that motivation remains. Along the way I set an informal target of 100 posts, with this being the 92nd and I would like to finish off 2018 by reaching my target. However, I must apologise in advance as time constraints will limit both the photos presented and the commentary. Nevertheless, I hope readers will be able to extract some pleasure and/or useful information from these final posts.

The opening photo (pic 1) of the Seimon Ishibashi Bridge with the Imperial Palace atop a slight hill in the background is immediately suggestive of Tokyo. The palace is built on the site of the original Edo Castle, which no longer remains and is an impressive sight that conjures visions of the old Japan. Whilst this image is the stock-standard shot, it is irresistible and one can appreciate why the bridge is nicknamed Spectacles Bridge.

I spent only a short time at the palace on the advice of Tokyo residents who had advised that there was no access to the palace buildings, though one is free to roam the gardens (pics 6 to 8), which were magnificent in their Autumnal splendour. One may notice city buildings in the background of some shots, which shows the proximity of the Palace to downtown Tokyo and reminds us yet again of how strategically castle sites were chosen in ages past. The final shot (pic 9) emphasises its strategic placement, with the palace gateway symbolising a passage between the old and the new.

Other buildings that I found interesting were an old Bansho (pics 2 & 3), which I understand is one of three original guardhouses remaining within the grounds; the Tokagakudo Music Hall (pic 4) built in 1966 in the shape of an octagon and with its outer walls depicting murals made from ceramic and pottery shards; and finally an unidentified building (pic 5) that simply appealed to me. My guess is that the building is some form of vault or archive and if anyone knows more about this building I would be most grateful.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



Sensoji Temple – Asakusa

With an estimated 30 million visits a year from locals and tourists, it is safe to conclude that Sensoji Temple is Asakusa’s most popular drawcard. First established in 645 AD, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and has been revered by many influential historical figures through the ages, as well as by the general population. Sensoji is devoted to the Bodhisattva Kannon who is regarded by followers as the most compassionate Buddha and is seen as a source of benevolence and relief from suffering.

Judging from my personal visits the temple is always busy, somehow befitting its background as the centre of Edo (present-day Tokyo) culture. Such busyness also fits well with Tokyo’s image as a bustling, vibrant metropolis.

Looking back from the temple steps (pic 1) through the Hozomon Gate to Nakamise Dori gives some impression of the temple’s popularity. Indeed, for some visitors it is likely that the highlight of their visits will be walking the gauntlet that is Nakamise Dori (pics 2 to 4). This is a long approach path through rows of souvenir shops and food stalls. Whilst such an approach to Japanese temples is quite common, I found Nakamise Dori to be overly commercial, though its longevity suggests that my view may be in the minority. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to observe the contrasting and sometimes individualistic dress styles of visitors.

Japan has many impressive temple gates and the Hozomon Gate (pics 5 and 6) is yet another. First built in 942 AD, the Hozomon Gate has been destroyed twice; firstly by fire in 1631 and again in 1945 during the bombing of Tokyo. The current structure of steel-reinforced concrete houses many of Sensoji’s treasures in its second-storey; including a copy of the Lotus Sutra that is a designated national treasure. Standing almost 23 metres high, 21 metres wide and 8 metres deep, it is a commanding presence and a worthy gateway to Tokyo’s oldest temple. However, the most eye-catching feature is the large red chochin (lantern) weighing approximately 400 kilograms that hangs from the gate’s central opening.

Passing through the Hozomon Gate brings one into an area (pic 7) where official temple souvenirs and worship related materials such as amulets, incense and scrolls may be purchased, beyond which lies the temple’s main entrance. Upon entering the main hall, one’s eye is immediately diverted upwards to a series of impressive ceiling paintings (pic 8), which, despite the different subject matter, reminded me of Kyoto’s Kennin-ji (covered in a December 2014 post). Ceremonies occur throughout the day and although one’s view is generally restricted, it is always satisfying when one can experience any temple ceremony (pic 9).

Some respite from the crowds can be found within Sensoji’s gardens, which, as can be seen from the glimpse viewed from the left-hand exit of the main hall (pic 10), are quite beautiful in their own right. Within the gardens are many statues of deities, including those at pic 12 where the statue to the right of the shot is said to represent the image of the Bodhisattva Kannon. I have always found Jizo (protectors of children) statues to be rather comforting (as in pic 13) and given that Sensoji is associated with compassion, it seemed an appropriate way to conclude this post.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Ginkakuji (Kyoto)

Located in Kyoto’s foothills, the ideal way to visit Ginkakuji is on foot via the Philosopher’s Path. Turning right at the end of the path, the final leg is uphill between rows of souvenir shops and food outlets, well placed to cater for hungry visitors on the way in or out or both.

Ginkakuji dates back to around 1480 and is a most significant temple. Originally built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasu, a shogun dedicated to the arts, Ginkakuji became a centre for contemporary culture that was to become known as Higashiyama Culture. Arts that developed and flourished during this time include arts that are seen today as synonymous not just with Japanese art, but with Japan. Imagine being at the centre of a culture developing the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, Noh theatre, garden design and architecture and one gets an idea of life around Ginkakuji at that time. Of even more significance is that the culture extended beyond the enjoyment of the aristocratic circles and filtered through to impact more broadly on the whole of Japan.

Ginkakuji is visually impressive in a rather uncomplicated way in that it relies on relatively few elements to deliver a serene environment for those who have lived there and for those of us able to visit only fleetingly. In this post I wish to draw attention to three key elements.

The best-known building is the Silver Pavilion (pics 1 and 2), named after an intention to cover the building in silver to both imitate and contrast with Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) built by Yoshimasu’s grandfather. Despite the original plan never being carried out, the building has aged gracefully and its survival through many fires and earthquakes since is a tribute to its architects and builders.

Also dating back to the temple’s foundation, Togo-du (pics 3 to 5) is the oldest example of Shoin architecture in Japan, the architectural style still governing how most contemporary tatami rooms are designed today. Within the building was the Dojinsai tearoom where Yoshimasu would often take tea and which many scholars consider to be the predecessor of the Tea Pavilion.

The Sea of Silver Sand (pics 6 to 9 and 11 to 13) is impossible to miss upon entering the grounds and when viewed from the higher reaches of the garden. It is, of course, a lovingly cared for dry sand garden that commands the eye, drawing one’s gaze towards the Silver Pavilion and the large sand cone named “Moon Viewing Platform” reminiscent of Mount Fuji.

A key element featured here only incidentally, is Ginkakuji’s magnificent gardens – an absolute must see in autumn. One of the many features is the moss garden, glimpses of which can be seen in pics 2 and 5. From there, one follows a path that meanders around the hillside overlooking the temple buildings and where even the fencing (pic 10) is impressive. The meandering path invites one to stop frequently to enjoy the views over the temple grounds and beyond to Kyoto (pics 11 to 13), a view that I always found delightful.

Ginkakuji is one of those places that make one relax and slow down. It is serene; it is tranquil; it invites contemplation and meditation; and this is largely due to the vision of a Shogun interested in arts and culture who, despite reigning in bloody war torn times, set in place the foundation for arts that came to be defining elements of Japan.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Snow Monkeys (part 2)

A friend told me that upon viewing a print of pic 1, his friend’s eyes turned to moons and she asked if those creatures are of this earth. Frozen moments in time become forever and I am happy to have this image forever. Leaving aside the visual effect of steam rising from the hot waters into the cold air and the shroud like appearance of the baby’s matted fur, it is fundamentally an image of a mother’s unconditional love for a child. Look at the eyes. Mother and child appear as if in a trance. Her entire being is focused on caring for her child and her child has surrendered to the comfort of a mother’s care. Many adjectives come to mind, but I have said enough and will now allow viewers to read the photograph through their own eyes and experiences.

If there was a dominant memory I took away from my two days with the Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani, it was that of having witnessed the importance of family at its most elemental level. Stripped of the comforts we often take for granted, bar nature’s gift of hot springs of course, this community of Japanese macaque demonstrate care and tenderness whilst surviving in a wild and often inhospitable mountain environment. To my eyes, pic 2 is an image of togetherness, with pics 3 and 4 emphasising the parent/child bonding that we hold so dear in our human societies. Pic 3 is especially interesting as it shows rare eye contact with an adult monkey. In their society, direct eye contact is a sign of enmity and the adult monkeys are expert in averting their gaze away from the camera lens.

The younger monkeys are more inquisitive and as can be seen from some of the images (pics 5 to 11), will stare directly into the camera. Watching the young monkeys at play is captivating and prior to the cuteness presented at pic 5, the two youngsters were playing boisterously. They may not know it, but such play prepares them for adult responsibilities and one wonders what adventures the future holds for them.

Maybe I have strange mental images of bats, but Batmonkey (pic 7) is so named because that was the image that popped into my head when this sopping wet monkey emerged from the hot springs to dry off. The curiosity of the young is further shown at pic 9 – a one handed shot leaning over the pool, with the camera facing directly down as the youngster looked directly up. It was pleasing that I was not perceived as a threat and was allowed to take the shot free of intimidation.

Pic 10 is a favourite image, where the young monkey seems equally engrossed in chewing a twig and checking out this alien at the side of the pool. Mum’s hand offers the security of knowing that protection is near, not that it was required. Look at this monkey’s unmarked face and big innocent eyes. Compare it to the faces of adult monkeys; all of who exhibit some scars of life and one can appreciate the rigorous life to come.

Tough love is also practiced, not that you would know it from the expression of the young monkey in pic 11, who had recently surfaced from a parental dunking. Prior to this photo, the monkey had been held under the water and walked around the pool by a parent – presumably as part of their training to survive their environment. No damage seems to have been done.

There is much time spent on grooming, either on a personal basis (pic 12) or with the help of a friend (pic 13). (This is an opportune time to point out that what may appear as blemishes in some photos are, in fact, dirt and vegetation caught in the monkeys’ fur. I do not like to extensively edit photographs and to edit away such objects would have been to misrepresent the monkeys’ true appearance.)

The harshness of life on the mountain is apparent at times and the adult monkey at pic 14 appears somewhat weary and worn. One must also remember that they live in a hierarchical community and this realization struck me from my observations of the old monkey at pic 15. He spent his time on the fringes. Part of the community, but no longer in the midst of the action. In years past, he may have been one of those dominant males that created so much tension on the first day of my visit. I felt sorry for this old monkey and although he retains a proud bearing, his plight is not dissimilar to that of many older people in our communities. Perhaps we are more alike than we really realise.

Before leaving Nagano I took this shot of the mountains as night fell. Not a great shot, but it felt nice to know the monkeys were up there somewhere.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Snow Monkeys (part 1)

Japanese Macaque monkeys can be found in various locations throughout Japan, but only at Jigokudani Yaenkoen can one observe the monkeys bathing in hot springs. These monkeys are more popularly known as Snow Monkeys and have featured in many nature documentaries filmed by people of international renown. However, there is always room for one more humble commentary on these wild enchanting creatures.

Jigokudani is about a forty-minute bus ride from Nagano Station, followed by a walk of thirty to forty minutes to reach the monkey park located in a valley near the Yokuya River – a mountainous area in central Japan. Given that Nagano (the host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics) is less than two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen, the visit can be made as a day trip.

This post is the first of a two-part blog, with today’s post concentrating on giving some idea of the area where the monkeys live, as well as introducing the monkeys of course. In the next post, I will share more images of young monkeys and their parental bonds.

The photographs were taken over two visits on consecutive days, with each of the days providing quite different experiences. There was an air of tension on the first day, apparently due to the comings and goings of the community’s dominant adult males. They are used to getting their own way and one did not need to be an expert naturalist to observe the hierarchical nature of the community. As is found in most wild animal communities, size and strength are key attributes.

Visitors should heed the warnings that the animals are wild, albeit used to and reasonably comfortable with the close presence of humans. I found this out firsthand when my confidence rose and I ventured too close for a photograph. My subject took offence, became snarly and charged. His bluff was enough and I retreated – warned and unharmed, not to mention providing some entertainment for others present. A little while later a Japanese woman was similarly charged and we enjoyed a short conversation about our war stories.

I clearly remember her saying that despite being hit on the leg, she still loved the monkeys.

On the second day and in the absence of the dominant males, the atmosphere was more relaxed and free from any aggression. Perhaps this is not unlike human communities where moods can vary in accordance with those present and the underlying social dynamics. Each monkey has their role and it is fascinating to be able to observe their social interactions at such close quarters.

I visited when autumn was yielding to winter, as can be appreciated from the first image of an adult monkey bathing in the hot spring, masked by the rising steam hitting the cold air. He was considerably warmer and more comfortable than I was at that time.

Pics 2 to 5 provide a rough chronology of the walk to the monkey park. Pic 2 shows the view of the valley from the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop, followed by a section of the path (pic 3) one takes to reach the snow monkeys. The climb is quite gradual and apart from a couple of steep sections is not arduous. One is almost there (pic 4) when the little village comes into view, where onsen type accommodation is available if one wished to stay on the mountain. My first view of the monkeys (pic 5) was that of several scampering over roofs and I am sure the residents’ windows are kept closed. When viewed together with pics 11 and 12, it can be seen that apart from the luxury of their hot springs, the monkeys are living in a challenging physical environment where snow covers the ground for some four months every year.

The remaining photographs feature the stars of the show and present monkeys enjoying the warmth of the pool (pics 7 and 8); sharing each other’s warmth (pic 10); monkeys in pensive mood (pic 14) and posturing pose (pic 15). You may have guessed that pic 9 is one of the dominant males mentioned earlier. A wider shot would have shown him commanding the pool without a care in the world.

In closing, I would like to say hello to Vladina and Jonathan whom I met during my visit and who, I am sure, have been expecting the Snow Monkeys to make an appearance on my blog. Here they are and I hope they bring back happy memories.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)